There’s a battle for your heart. The only question is whether you’re going to join the fight.
To understand the battleground and the nature of the fight, I think it’s useful to take two things Jesus said about the kingdom and place them side by side. The first is from the seventeenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. “[T]he kingdom of God is within you,” said Jesus (v. 21). And the second is from the eleventh chapter of Matthew’s. “[T]he kingdom of heaven suffers violence,” he said, “and the violent take it by force” (v. 12).
Attaining this inner kingdom involves war, and Jesus directs us to join the fight for our hearts.
Against our natural inclinations
We can see the contours of the struggle when we recall that Jesus told us to love our enemies. That requires an act of the will counter to our natural inclinations. It requires that we subdue our desires and direct them toward the purposes of God, that we conquer our given dispositions for the sake of the kingdom.
What are those natural inclinations, beyond hating one’s enemies? Jesus points us to an answer when correcting the Pharisees on what defiles a person, things external or things internal. Jesus said it was the latter. “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies,” he said. “These are the things which defile a man. . .” (Matt 15.19-20).
We must take our hearts by force and put down the impulse to lust, greed, envy, and every other sin that would defile us.
The deeds of violence
This is an uphill fight, a pitched battle. “[I]t was never without many trials and labors, sweat and violence, difficulty and tribulation that anyone was able to break through the darkness of the soul or see the light of the all-Holy Spirit,” wrote Symeon the New Theologian. After quoting Christ’s direction to take the kingdom by force, Symeon added, “[I]t is through many tribulations that we must enter the Kingdom.”
Traditionally, the church counsels asceticism as the weapon to wage the battle — fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, among other disciplines. Symeon characterized these as the deeds of violence by which the inner kingdom is taken. Let God, he said, lead you
to deeds with violence.
For the Kingdom of Heaven
is also subject to violence.
What sort of deeds do I tell you about?
Vigilance and fasting,
rainstorms of tears, and remorse,
continual remembering of death,
and unceasing prayer,
and patient endurance of all sorts
of trials that come upon you.
Before all these, silence,
and deep humility,
and perfect obedience,
and cutting out one’s own will.
(Hymn 30, lines 553-567)
Desperation knows no defeat
There is no question that some make more progress here than others. I find Augustine’s take on why to be instructive.
He looked to Christ’s later statement that tax collectors and harlots will attain the kingdom before the chief priest and the elders (Matt 21.31). “They go before,” Augustine then commented, “because they do violence: they push their way by faith, and to faith a way is made, nor can any resist, since they who are violent take it by force. . . . Such was the conduct of the robber, more courageous on the cross than in the place of ambush” (Exposition on Psalm 87 5).
There is an all-or-nonthingness to the war of the heart. The self-satisfied are too easily comforted by other means. But the desperate push on because they realize they have no other choice. They sell everything for the pearl. They dispense with all they have for the treasure in the field. “[D]esperation,” said Isaac of Syria, “knows no defeat at the hand of any. . . .” And so the dying, daring robber pleads remembrance and snatches victory from death.
The kingdom is to be won at all adventures, whatever the cost. How earnestly will we take up the fight?